Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Online Readers Are Too Picky! Too Much Skimming, Scanning!" Really?

The essay in last Sunday's Denver Post ('Skimming and Scanning Online News') was curious for presuming to be enlightening but it really wasn't. Author Michael Rosenwald noted an earlier article he wrote for The Washington Post in which he asserted that too much "skimming and scanning" of online news as well as blogs  was "messing with our ability to read deeper and longer works."

He then observed in the current article that his earlier piece "had gone viral"  (including inciting Twitter and Facebook debates - ironic in itself) and "even on Craig Ferguson's CBS 'Late Late' Show".   Rosenwald, noting all this, then asked:

"But here's a question for the digital age: Did all those readers actually read the story? Lots of people joked about this on Twitter, with variations of 'I skimmed this'"

I interject here that Twitter isn't really designed for an in- depth discussion given its text limits. Hence, it is the ideal medium for encouraging flighty, sound bite attention spans. Facebook isn't much better, but at least it allows more space for comments - not that a serious person would post any examination of political or economic events there. Again, it's more a social schmooze site. If you want to explore Obamacare in depth, or the unwise Obama decision to send U.S. troops to eastern Europe in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, FB is not the place to do it. Instead you create a blog and then expatiate, preferably disclosing your reasoning at each point.

Given this background, Rosenwald's next observations make eminent sense:

"The good folks at Chartbeat, which tracks how people read digital content, performed an analysis and found that 25 percent of readers didn't even scroll past the headline and photograph to the text of the article. A smaller percentage of readers dropped off somewhere toward the middle of the story. And 31 percent made it all the way through (I have a lollipop for that group)."

But again this ought not be astounding news. Anyone who runs any kind of serious blog - as opposed to one featuring favorite recipes, wrestling babies or kitty-doggy boxing matches, can see the same trend.  Most people simply don't want to invest in any  extended, brain-demanding account or post. They prefer the shorter variants and not too much heavy stuff.  Keep it fluffy and light with large dollops of yucks.

Rosenwald's consult with Chartbeat's chief data scientist, Josh Schwartz, confirms this.  Schwartz informed him that on average one -third of news readers never make it to the end. In some cases, up to 90 percent say goodbye without even reading. Schwartz added that "most people don't read the article they land on." The same trends apply to serious blogs, with mostly serious (including scientific content).

As an aside, there can be remarkable exceptions. For example, my first post on the applications of differential equations last year already has more than 1200 reads and still counting. But this may merely show a large proportion of college age readers who are doing differential equations at university and found the application examples useful. Most other math blog posts barely reach 25-30 reads.

Taking this to heart, Rosenwald writes, concerning the skimming, scanning folks:

"They look for key words and if something excites them, they read. If not, they scamper around.  There is apparently a lot of scampering. This is how we deal with the superabundance of information online."

He then describes how this flightiness has crept into his normal reading, to the extent of starting to read novels and other longer works - then putting them down.

Is any of this really amazing? Not really! It was originally elaborated by Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation,   Bauerlein mainly zoomed in on the under 30 crowd who were  "foregoing knowledge-based maturity to wallow in a self-confected, solipsistic, social mirror world" of their own egos and selves. The fallout included their not even meeting basic standards of knowledge for employment, far less earning a degree that actually means anything. (A survey- test circulated at the time the book was released found a majority of Harvard grads flunked a basic test on American History.)

The general takeaway was that the digital media used, whether Facebook,Twitter or just  cell messages all contributed to an artificial solipsistic world filtered by the egocentric dispositions of the users. Instead of being a channel of information and knowledge consolidation, the monitor screen becomes a mirror of the young users’ own limited selves and under-developed psyches.
So, all the things that bother and bore them are blocked out. The people they don’t know and don’t want to know they can exclude at the touch of key. A new bomb may have been developed by Iran, and an earthquake may have killed thousands in China, but in the case of most Facebook and Twitter  users it’s the old monkey show: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” .

A delimited reality is  thereby confected which deliberately excludes the harsh outside world, and confines the personalized reality to chirpy “how r ya’s”, or gossip, mainly in deformed English which Bauerlein ranks just above the reading level of pre-school children’s books (determined by the median frequency of rare or difficult words per 1000 – with print newspapers at the top with 68.3 and pre-school books at 16.3).

This is illuminating. Because if most scanners and skimmers are only at the level of  recognizing 20-25  difficult words per page they will not be able to handle a newspaper story (or a serious blog post) with 68-75 difficult words per page. No surprise then that most newspaper stories will not be read, and only titillating stories get attention.

Of course, this means the same people can vote, and one must be concerned how informed they are when they do. Beyond that, are they even able to read a lengthy ballot properly?

Rosenwald adds at the end:

"Cognitive scientists are worried about this trend. And they should be."


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